The perilous place where boys become men

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The perilous place where boys become men

Michael Kimmel calls upon the men of his generation to give their sons a different definition of masculinity

by Adrienne Rose Johnson on Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 9:55am

image of book coverYoung people navigating the murky period between adolescence and adulthood have been called “adultolescents,” “emerging adults,” and “twixters.” These so-called over-parented and under-achieving young adults are a new breed who, as “Newsweek” put it, mooch off parents’ payrolls even as the “safety net becomes a suffocating blanket.” The media is rife with worry that these almost-adult 16- to 26-year-olds will never grow up — that they live in a Peter Pan world of pixie dust, not an adult world of accountability. 

But the media has never done what Michael Kimmel does in Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. Cutting through the fear that America’s children will never grow up, Kimmel maps the territory of emerging adulthood, and, as he so succinctly said in his Stanford talk, “I gender it.” Although men tend to dominate this media outcry, masculinity, Kimmel says, is often overlooked. Kimmel illustrates that the struggle to grow up male in America is saturated with absurd, often violent, masculinity-testing rituals.

"Guyland" is Kimmel's name for the land where young men suffer and stutter between boyhood and manhood, where their tremulous masculinity is tested time and time again, where sex is mistaken for intimacy, where cowardice is masked in courage, and where young men wonder if they are ever going to be the men their fathers were. It is a land of great bravado but little bravery. It is a land of boys on the brink. And it is in this land that boys stumble — falling often and bruising more — toward becoming men. While these lost boys are the easy targets in Guyland, Kimmel points out that it is their parents, teachers, and coaches who are actually failing these young men.

Kimmel calls upon the men in his generation to give their sons a different definition of masculinity.

Kimmel does more than to chart the damaging gender dynamics that harm men and women alike in contemporary society: he offers a solution. With sympathy and discipline, Kimmel calls upon the men in his generation to give their sons a different definition of masculinity — one not defined by the disregard of women, asinine pranks, or silly games, but one defined by integrity, pride, and respect. 

Men can only be made, Kimmel argues, by valuing integrity rather than indifference, practicing real bravery over empty bravado, and respecting young men rather than dismissing them as the “boys” who, as we all can only hope, will no longer “always” be boys. 

In Guyland, gender is invisible

“Women made gender visible,” Kimmel reflected, “but gender is invisible to men.” It used to be, Kimmel remembered, that “a boy became a man when he completed school, got a job, and began to raise a family.” These markers have been pushed farther and farther back. Men and women alike are getting married later and staying in school longer. At the turn of the century, Kimmel explained, “boys entered the workplace, and adulthood, at 16.” Now, of course, we live in a far different world.

Young man working as mechanic, 1959The enormous strides made by the women’s movement — workforce participation, educational attainment, sexual agency — have not been matched by an increase in men’s careers or educational growth. From the stagnation in real wages since the 1970s to the crumbling of the labor union system, traditionally “masculine” jobs have given way to softer service sector jobs. Though women still earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar, working-class men are no longer leaving school “for the farm or the factory,” but, rather, for the Starbucks or the Sears. Men employed in service jobs still out-earn women, but their identity is complex — especially if, like most American men, they also rely on their wives’ income.

Although folding jeans or brewing lattes does not assert masculinity like welding auto parts, Kimmel argues, many of the more atrocious rites of passage have filled those gaps. College campuses and, in particular, fraternities, are notorious for their cockamamie schemes to initiate boys into the men’s club.

Wrongs of passage

image of young men jumpingOver the course of his research, Kimmel found some bizarre rites of passage at nearly 300 colleges and universities in the United States. Fraternities and other clubs haze new members with rituals designed to humiliate. Young men have died from these rituals — rituals that all too often involve poisonous amounts of alcohol (surveys estimate that 80 percent of fraternity members are binge drinkers), unbearable conditions (like being forced to stand naked in raw sewage), and unthinkable risks (blinded tight-roping, branding with a hot coat hanger).

Young men are also initiated with sex. In Guyland, men sleep with women to prove their masculinity to other men. One college student told Kimmel that, even in the midst of having sex with a woman, the student cared less for their pleasure than he did for the points it would score him with his fraternity brothers. If a woman is not game for a one-night stand, they are labeled as “bitches [who] resist men’s ideas of how to behave.” 

Rites of passage into manhood are a hallmark of many world cultures, Kimmel argues, but the hazing at American universities is unusually dangerous because it occurs in a “vacuum of adult men.” Coaches, university administrators, and professors work under the premise of “plausible deniability” about the prevalence of dangerous hazing rituals. This abdication of responsibility — not the idea of initiation itself — is where the danger comes in. As a college professor and father himself, Kimmel recognizes his own complicity in letting these rituals persist and the urgent need to intervene.

Not only is it dangerous when 19 year-olds initiate their 18 year-old buddies into manhood, it also does not work.

Not only is it dangerous when 19 year-olds initiate their 18 year-old buddies into manhood, it also does not work: Kimmel argues that these rituals result in the constant testing and re-testing of one’s masculinity, which leads to both identity crises, and the bravado and machismo that hurts both men and women. Gender in Guyland, then, hurts women just as much as it hurts the boys yearning to become men.

Kimmel, unlike the coaches and university administrators who claim “plausible deniability,” urges his generation to take responsibility for its failure to make men from these boys. With braver leaders, more sensitive teaching, better parenting (especially fathering), and an involved adult presence on college campuses, Kimmel believes young men can “live through this stage more consciously, more honorably, and with greater resilience.”  


Michael Kimmel spoke at Stanford in an event sponsored by the Clayman Institute and co-sponsored by the Inter-Fraternity Council and Men Against Abuse Now.

Michael Kimmel
Distinguished Professor of Sociology

Michael Kimmel is among the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity. He holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Stony Brook University in New York, is the founder and editor of the academic journal, Men and Masculinities, and is the author or editor of more than 20 volumes.

Adrienne Rose Johnson
PhD Candidate

Adrienne Rose Johnson is a PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature. She is member of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team